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Students helping students: Learning assistants play important role in new way to teach science

Published March 18, 2014

The first thing you notice is the loudness of the classroom as students in NDSU’s Biology 150 course get down to business. With active and animated conversations among more than 100 students, there is serious learning going on.

In the middle of it all is a student who moves from one clustered group to another, facilitating interaction and answering questions. Caitlin Bussard is the learning assistant for the class.

Bussard, a junior majoring in biological sciences from Minot, N.D., said she became a learning assistant because she was apprehensive about Biology 150 when she took the course as a freshman, and a learning assistant helped her succeed.

“Upon my completion of the course, I found myself wanting to provide the same opportunity and guidance for upcoming students – that’s why I joined the learning assistant program,” Bussard said. “I had many great experiences with students this past semester. Some of the greatest moments are when a student shares his or her success on an exam, homework or increased understanding of a topic after seeking guidance. I truly believe in this program.”

Described as mentors, tutors and guides, the learning assistants are fellow students who lend an important hand in the learning process. The NDSU program, which is patterned after a project originated at the University of Colorado Boulder, is part of a national effort to change how undergraduate science classes are taught, moving to a learner-based model that better prepares future scientists and teachers for the workplace.

“Learning assistants are outstanding undergraduate students we invite back into the classroom. They’ve ‘been there, done that’ and are familiar with all the difficulties there can be to learning. They know the potential pitfalls other students face,” explained Jenni Momsen, assistant professor of biological sciences.

The Learning Assistant program started in November 2011 through the initial efforts of Momsen; Warren Christensen, assistant professor of physics; and Erika Offerdahl, assistant professor of biochemistry. All three attended a workshop at the University of Colorado Boulder to learn about the learning assistant concept.

With the support of dean Scott Wood, the project has since evolved into a program across the NDSU College of Science and Mathematics under the direction of Jeff Boyer, assistant professor of practice. NDSU is now part of the Learning Assistant Alliance, a collection of colleges and universities using learning assistants to transform education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, known as STEM.

“We have some large enrollment classes with 100 to 300 students, and we wanted students to be more active, more engaged in learning the material,” Momsen said, noting the goal is to have one learning assistant for every 50 students. “The learning assistants help faculty to make active learning environments. The point is to improve student learning and they are there to make that happen.

Sophomore Calla Price, a zoology major from Hazen, N.D., was the learning assistant for another section of the introductory biology course. “Having learning assistants in a class helps the students feel more comfortable learning because they have a peer to ask questions and show them how to have a different viewpoint on content,” Price said. “I gained a deeper understanding of the content of the course as well as making numerous friends. I also learned techniques that helped me learn and teach others. Leading a student to a correct answer without actually giving him or her the answer was one of the most fulfilling moments imaginable.”

The duties of the learning assistants can vary from class to class. Some work one-on-one with students, while others help organize learning activities for the classroom. Others have office hours, and still others monitor discussion groups and answer specific questions for students taking online courses. Students clearly can relate to what they have to say.

“I’m excited about the program. I love having learning assistants in my course, and other faculty members have said learning assistants are critical in making learning activities happen,” Momsen said. “On the flip side, we’ve had a number of students say they want to become learning assistants because a learning assistant was critical to their own learning. So, I think the program has the potential to become an amazing tool for our instructors.”


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